The shortest and cheapest of Disney's animated features, Dumbo has long been characterized by its modesty. When it was released in 1941, in the wake of the grandiose and poorly received Fantasia, its simple story and relatively self-contained world looked like a retreat to smallness. Of all of Disney's major films, Dumbo has been the least subject to the studio's calculated reissue pattern, popping up on television and home video with unprecedented regularity. Even now, its release on DVD in an appropriately features-packed edition has been overshadowed by the release of the even-more-deluxe edition of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Dumbo lacks the marketing-driven halo of mystery in which Disney shrouds so many of its films; consequently, it's almost easy to forget that it's not only one of the best classic-era Disney features, but also one of the best animated films from any studio at any time. Dumbo himself embodies most of the reasons. As playful and unselfconscious as a toddler in the film's early scenes, the speechless, virtually silent protagonist takes on a wounded soulfulness as his story progresses and his trials escalate. Dumbo evokes more sympathy for an outcast cartoon elephant than would seem possible, or even bearable. There may be more affecting cinematic moments between mothers and children than the one in which Dumbo's mother, from within her cage, cradles her child in her trunk to the accompaniment of "Baby Mine," but they're rare. With Fantasia, Disney explicitly set out to test the technical limits of animation, but with Dumbo, however inadvertently, the studio tested the emotional limits. Though it ultimately provides sweet redemption, Dumbo plunges its hero pretty close to the heart of darkness. Not that its technical achievements should be ignored: From the bizarre, justly famous "Pink Elephants On Parade" sequence to its less show-stopping moments, Dumbo captures Disney feature filmmaking, still near its infancy, at its best. On an informative commentary track filled with the biographical details of the talent behind the film, John Canemaker recounts how the animation was informed by the study of everything from German Expressionism to live elephants trucked to the Disney studio. The homework paid off. Elsewhere, in an introduction from the old Disneyland TV series, Walt Disney himself singles out "the story of the little elephant with the big ears" as his personal favorite. Revisited 60 years after its release, his choice looks as solid as ever.
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